Not until now. Aside from statements by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that nuclear war should be avoided — the kind of truth few argue — China has not criticized Russia’s actions. Even that nudge has not stopped President Vladimir Putin from being nuclear savvy, culminating in his withdrawal from the New START treaty this week.
China released a 12-point document on Ukraine on Friday calling for a ceasefire and peace talks. The newspaper was brief and largely repeated earlier statements by Mr. Xi and other Chinese officials. It also reiterated demands, such as not strengthening military blocs or using unilateral sanctions, that clearly served the interests of both Russia and China, foreign policy analysts said.
“The paper itself suggests that China wants to get involved as part of diplomacy and political settlements,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “At the same time, it tries very carefully not to undermine significant strategic interests of China in partnership with Russia.”
Messrs. Putin and Xi are firmly at the top of major authoritarian states. They share the view that the international system is unfairly aligned with their country and see each other as an important counterbalance to the US-led West. On Wednesday, Mr Putin said Mr Xi would visit Moscow, which would be their 40th meeting since Mr Xi came to power a decade ago.
The two leaders said shortly before the start of the war that their nations had a friendship without borders. And while the West has piled up sanctions against Russia, trade with China has grown. China has taken cheap oil and gas from Russia and sold it microchips and other technology that can be used in weapons.
But while Putin seems intent on continuing to go to war, China’s leadership is growing increasingly wary of the prospect of a protracted conflict that could seriously cripple its strategic partner, policy advisers in Beijing said. That close alignment has increased costs for China as policymakers in the US and elsewhere seek ways to impose more technology, investment and other restrictions on Chinese companies that could hurt the country’s long-term economic prospects.
China has tried to counter those efforts with diplomacy. On a whirlwind tour of Europe last week, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, delivered the message that Beijing is calling for talks to end the war.
Meanwhile, according to claims by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Beijing is considering offering military aid to Russia.
The two paths are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some foreign policy strategists in Beijing have said such aid could significantly increase the cost of the conflict to the West and give China some leverage in proposing options to end it.
The US has warned China against supplying arms to Russia. Aside from the economic sanctions such a move would likely bring, it opens up the prospect of a Cold War-style proxy war, with the US and Europe aligned with Russia and China and the potential to emerge from expand outside Ukraine.
China has rejected claims that it is considering selling arms to Russia, instead pointing the finger at Western military aid to Ukraine. “The US is the largest source of weapons for the battlefield in Ukraine, but it continues to smear China by falsely claiming that China could offer weapons to Russia,” said Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.
Revelations about possible arms sales would further undermine Beijing’s efforts to present itself as an honest mediator in peace efforts. European diplomats have already questioned whether China’s interests in stabilizing Russia might not allow the country to put pressure on negotiations.
In the coming week, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, one of Putin’s closest allies, will travel to China for a state visit. Belarus has allowed the Russian military to attack Ukraine from its territory and has faced sanctions from the US, European Union and others.
Like Moscow, Beijing still refrains from calling the conflict a war. China prefers to describe it as the ‘crisis in Ukraine’. Like Moscow, it blames the US for fueling violence by supplying weapons to Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials have said they welcome China’s statements that territorial integrity must be respected. But Beijing abstained from United Nations votes criticizing Russia’s annexation of four regions in eastern Ukraine last year and Crimea in 2014.
Beijing’s reluctance to confront Russia is likely to continue in all multilateral talks, foreign policy analysts say.
“In reality, China is skeptical of its ability to be instrumental in the negotiations,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They understand that Putin is obsessed with this war. Putin still believes he can win this war militarily, and unless there is more clarity on the battlefield, there is not much to talk about.”
Still, acting as an advocate for peace can resonate outside Europe, in countries where support for Ukraine is much more mixed. Parts of Africa and the Middle East were hit by disrupted grain and fertilizer shipments at the start of the conflict. After easing last year, prices of those commodities are rising again amid fears that a UN-backed deal to resume shipments from Ukraine will not be renewed.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, in a speech at the Munich security conference, acknowledged questions from the rest of the world about Ukraine’s massive spending on arms compared to efforts to combat poverty elsewhere, adding that he was affected by the loss of credibility of the West. in the Global South.
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Chinese diplomats, meanwhile, have emphasized the impact of the war outside Europe. “The more turbulent the international situation is, the more attention should be paid to the voices of African countries,” Chinese diplomat Wang said during a meeting with the Algerian foreign minister shortly after the outbreak of war last year.
China’s public emphasis on peace talks may not necessarily hasten a resolution. China’s largest attempt at multiparty talks began two decades ago when it hosted a series of negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. The problems were different from the war in Ukraine, but there are some similarities.
Like Russia today, North Korea counted China as its greatest friend. Other parties to the talks, notably the US, called on China to use its influence to force concessions, but it refused. Analysts said China was concerned about the potential collapse of its neighbor, which could lead to a united Korea aligned with the US on its northeastern border.
The talks dragged on for years. Commitments were announced and a joint statement was issued on moves towards denuclearization. But the attempt ultimately failed when North Korea withdrew from the talks in 2009. It is now believed to have dozens of nuclear bombs and tested intercontinental ballistic missiles with the range to hit the US.
—Lingling Wei contributed to this article.
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